Nine Tips to Guide Company & Troop Fire Support Officers
If you are reading this as a new Fire Support Officer (FSO), congratulations. You don’t know it yet, but you have won the lottery. Serving as a Company/Troop (CO/TRP) FSO is the most independent, rewarding, and developmental job one can have as a young artillery officer. While the nine tips and methods discussed below are targeted to aid those coming straight from Field Artillery-Basic Officer Leader’s Course (FA-BOLC) to a FSO slot, most, if not all, can certainly be applied to any lieutenant assuming a Fire Direction Officer (FDO) or Battery (BTRY) Platoon Leader position. There is no specific order intended, however, I have found 7, 8, and 9 to bring the most success regardless of position.
- Be fit.
Your physical fitness is your cornerstone. As a CO/TRP FSO, you are expected to be at the hip of the maneuver commander during the planning, coordination, and execution of training. You will be viewed as representative of your entire artillery battalion both physically and mentally. Be able to prove yourself, and your team, reliable and resilient alongside your maneuver element. There will absolutely be situations where you will be required to occupy and establish observation posts, often in restricted and elevated terrain. You must be skilled in dismounted movement, under load, in all environments. Ensure you incorporate days each week where you perform morning PT with your maneuver element.
A proven successful method:
- Monday: PT with your Battalion/Squadron Fire Support Team (FIST) Platoon
- Tuesday: PT with your CO/TRP Commander and/or Headquarters
- Wednesday: PT as singular FIST
- Thursday: Ruck day; alternate each week with one of the four
- individual FIST, or as a FIST PLT
- with the CO/TRP CDR and HQ
- with the CO/TRP mortar section
- with the CO/TRP Platoons
- Friday: BTRY/FIST PLT runs
If you ever find yourself in the positions I have, your team will be glad you’ve invested in your fitness the next time you’re breaking trail while in snow up to your hips.
- Get competent in “LT Basics.”
While I have slide decks proving they were briefed, I swear the first two of these three “basics” were never covered in FA-BOLC. Being able to grasp all three of these skills will quickly set you ahead of your peers.
The first “LT Basic” is maintenance. Learn up on all of your equipment’s technical manuals, calibration requirements, and their proper PMCS. Understand how to read and accurately complete a DA 5988-Equipment Maintenance and Inspection Worksheet, a DA 5990-Maintenance Request, and a DA 2404-Equipment Inspection and Maintenance Worksheet. Know the classes of supply and the supply acquisition process. Get consistent estimations on your unit’s funding. Become intimate on how to read an equipment status report (ESR), and how to translate the acquisition codes from it. Being able to anticipate equipment faults, calibration dates, scheduled services, and when repair parts/equipment will arrive feeds the next “LT Basic.”
“LT Basic” number two is training management. While it is your responsibility to ensure your FIST is trained, validated, and certified, this is where your FIST Platoon Sergeant and your Fire Support Team Chief need to take the reins. They will teach you how to schedule and publish a training plan accommodating certifications, gunnery tables, MORTEPs, and, of course, all your team’s AR 350-1 training.
“LT Basic” three: consistent and proper prioritization of time and efforts. An officer’s most treasured resource is their time. Where and how you plant your feet demonstrates what you think is important for mission success. Looking back as a FSO, at least 50% of my garrison time was in the motor pool. Whatever time I had left was spent either in my maneuver unit’s offices or the FIST PLT office I shared with three other Fire Support Teams. If you do not invest in your equipment, then neither will your team.
- Get Creative.
Fire direction is the science, fire support is the art. My first Squadron FSO was one of the most brilliant artillerymen I’ve met; he pushed his FSOs every day to operate beyond their level. Regularly he challenged us with ambiguous planning scenarios consisting only of a commander’s intent, an end state, and an AO. He would then task us to build fire support plans to generate the desired end state. There was never a right or wrong answer (well, maybe there were wrong answers sometimes), but the lessons were profound. Those drills were pivotal as I learned a successful FSO needs to visualize fire support tasks, their purpose, and their effects, at every echelon of the fight. What’s more, he elevated our process by requiring our Fire Support Tasks (FSTs) to be nested with notional higher headquarters FSTs. This process allowed us to fully grasp synchronization of fires and find when redundancy was needed, both when planning vertically as a BDE and horizontally in our SQDN.
- Be a communications EXPERT.
Communication is the FSO’s weapon. Be dominant in quickly and effectively managing several communication methods across multiple nets. Practice mounted and dismounted communication drills. More importantly, be an expert on your maneuver unit’s communications systems; you never know where the nearest hand mic or keyboard might be. Junior artillery officers absolutely need familiarity and experience with upper tactical internet (TI) systems as well, especially the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System.
This is one thing I wish I trained harder on. After occupation of an OP, my team did not ever do much on improving and concealing our position. As the force continues to move towards Large-Scale Combat Operations, signature management, both physical and technical, is one thing we as FSOs must prioritize.
- Be a teacher.
Invest in your people. The most effective teaching tool my FIST PLT used was a simple whiteboard kept in our office. Any downtime we had in the day, the FSOs or FSNCOs would start teaching with the whiteboard. We’d delve into anything and everything involving fire support with the junior observers and RTOs. Simple and consistent lessons produced buy-in with our SGTs and below; further, it displayed their leader’s level of passion for fire support.
- Buy organic, early and often.
Finally, some real tactical Fires information.
Imagine it, there you are, on your OP, and you’ve stumbled upon a target of opportunity; what do you do? The answer, buy organic.
It’s good practice to always start with organic firing elements before elevating to higher assets. This will likely be your organic mortar section. If they don’t have the ammunition to properly execute the fire mission, then you elevate. Relying upon organic assets will nearly always be the fastest and most reliable method to execute an accurate fire mission. A successful FSO will have an effective and team-oriented relationship with their mortar section.
Most have likely heard the “get flat” catchphrase in their organization. It’s very easy to find yourself interacting with nearly half of the battalions in your brigade in a single day. You can be planning gun raids with aviators in the morning, having a mentorship lunch with your battery commander at noon, assisting mechanics in the motor pool from 1300-1600, and finally, having a quick training update with your maneuver commander before daily closeout. That was an exact day from my schedule in 2018. Investing in these relationships breaks down the “silos” we still see too often. If a squad or team leader in your supported maneuver company, or even a mechanic in your Forward Support Company, can identify your voice in the dark or simply over the radio, you’re relational.
However, there is a catch with being relational: you must demonstrate follow through. It’s one thing to have a bunch of cell numbers in your phone, it’s quite another when you know exactly who to reach out to when a task comes up to action. Relationships matter as they inform your reputation, and that always follows you. The Army can be a pretty small place; you never know who you may end up working with again.
- Be fluent in your supported unit’s doctrine.
It’s my first day with my FIST platoon and I introduce myself to our platoon sergeant. While unassuming at first glance, he quickly proved his impeccable Fires knowledge and how to layer it within maneuver planning. After a brief introduction, and notably, before we discussed any unit or PLT level SOPs, he handed me ATP 3-20.96, Cavalry Squadron, and said he’d quiz me on basic squadron tactics and fires planning during the next few days. Why? Because successful FSOs approach fire support with a maneuver perspective, not by planning targets based off of key terrain and suspected enemy CoAs. If you’re a TRP FSO and you can’t explain how a CAV TRP establishes a screen, conducts a route, area or zone recon, executes a passage of lines, or even how SQDN staff calculates their time distance estimates, you will not be able to plan fire support to its maximum capacity.
- Be fluent in your doctrine and products.
From platforms and Muzzle Velocity Variation (MVVs) to overlays and Fire Support Execution Matrices, an expert FSO is an expert in the entirety of Fires. It cannot be denied, no matter the field, success is developed through competence and confidence. You will make mistakes, and you will fail; we all do. Nonetheless, you mitigate the overall impact of mistakes by being competent in your work. A competent FSO makes errors far less frequently, and far less in magnitude for that matter, compared to one unfamiliar with their equipment, expectations, and products. How do we become confident and competent? Practice and education.
You are not dismissed from learning just because you are no longer in the schoolhouse. As a FSO, continue to practice Safety T’s. Go get some hip training from the Radar PLT warrant and how he/she employs them tactically. Head to the firing batteries and get reps on the aiming circle. Go work with a FDO updating their MVVs. Establish comms classes with your battalion S6. Reach out to the Engineers to learn how they build and establish gun pits for the howitzers. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; everything and anything you will do as a FSO or a FIST, rehearse it. If you’re really committed, or sadistic rather, compete against your other FSOs as to who can manually complete an accurate DA 4200-Met Data Correction Sheet the fastest. That is being a Master of Fires.
If there is one key takeaway here it’s that artillerymen and women are the foremost integrators on the battlefield. Maneuver commanders deserve competent, concise, and timely fire support. Learn to think the way they think, and how they doctrinally approach problem sets. Market and sell Fires in their maneuver language so it straightforwardly nests with their plan. Push your team to accomplish that mission daily.
Do not hesitate to “diversifying your portfolio” so to speak. It was not something emphasized in my BDE, but I can visualize it within the future of LSCO; CO/TRP FSOs need to get comfortable planning for all effects, both lethal and non-lethal. It’s not just about cannons, rockets, and mortars anymore; we must integrate assets across the spectrum of effects for commanders.
Maintain your composure when things do not go as planned. Maintain a growth mindset in everything you do and commit yourself to being a problem solver. Work to be a contributor instead of a consumer and never stop at the first wall you come to. 99% of the complications you encounter as a FSO are solved by communicating effectively within your BN and BDE.
Lastly, it cannot be said enough: reps, reps, reps, and when you’re done, more reps. Practice throwing up the OE-254s, rehearse vehicle self-recovery and supporting vehicle recovery, practice vehicle identification, crawl-walk-run with your maneuver live fires, teach the fundamentals of building engagement areas for defensive fires planning, anything you can earthly imagine, practice it. It will pay dividends for you, your team, your unit, the Field Artillery, and the US Army.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Center for Junior Officers, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Bio: Steve Krawczyk is a 2013 graduate of the University of Miami-FL and an active duty Captain currently serving in the 2-39 IN Regiment at Fort Jackson, SC. He was recently selected for follow-on training after Psychological Operations Assessment and Selection and is awaiting attendance to ARSOF-CCC. He has served as a Troop Fire Support Officer, Battery Executive Officer, Battalion Maintenance Officer, and IMT Platoon Leader.